“Significant Portions of the Movie Were Literally Just Lit by the Television”: Kyle Edward Ball on Skinamarink
The primordial fear of being watched, stalked and caught by an unknown entity lurking in the dark is the basis of Skinamarink, the microbudget feature debut from writer-director-editor Kyle Edward Ball. The incredibly loose narrative follows young siblings Kevin (Lucas Paul) and Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault) as they patter around their family’s strikingly ordinary middle-class house in the dead of night circa 1995. Their parents are nowhere to be found, all of the doors have mysteriously vanished and the lights eventually stop working. While this phenomena is enough to chill any child, their well-being is most threatened by a supernatural presence that beckons the siblings to obey increasingly disturbing requests. Skinamarink does not rely on typical genre conventions, barely even showing the protagonists in full, opting for shots of disjointed limbs and obscured faces. The film’s bone-numbing terror comes from somewhere deeper and more genuine than a cheap jump-scare, like an early childhood nightmare extracted from our collective subconscious, transferred to a VHS tape and screened on an old CRT television set at 3 a.m.
The spaces and scenarios that horrified us as children may no longer exist, but the tangible fear we felt is eternal. Ball has long been fascinated with this sentiment, which he first examined in short form as a horror YouTuber. From there, he made the short film Heck in 2020, which was essentially a test-run for making Skinamarink. The final feature film was shot entirely in Ball’s childhood home for $15,000, but its scrappy production and experimental storyline have only aided the film’s widespread hype. After its premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival last summer, buzz gradually mounted for a film that had no public announcement regarding distribution or streaming acquisition. A few months ago, a leaked version of the film was stolen from a film festival’s streaming platform, and Redditors, TikTok creators and various online horror aficionados scrambled to watch the film and measure it against overwhelmingly positive word of mouth. Luckily for Ball, it appeared that most who encountered his vision were equally delighted and disturbed by it. Perhaps even more serendipitous for Ball is that the film’s (albeit preemptive) popularity didn’t affect a then months-old negotiation struck by IFC Midnight and Shudder. The former will release the film theatrically on January 13, while the latter will announce a streaming premiere at a later date.
Filmmaker spoke with Ball via Zoom last month ahead of the holidays and Skinamarink‘s theatrical release. During our conversation, Ball discussed his use of Super 16mm film grain overlays, finding the movie’s creepiest prop by sheer coincidence and what he considers the most common nightmare.
Filmmaker: Though this is your debut feature, it directly builds off of the filmmaking you shared through your YouTube channel Bitesized Nightmares. Of course, there’s the Nightmare’s short film series, where you visually recreated nightmares that users would share in comments on your videos. More palpably, though, the Nostalgic Spooky Videos series has a direct link to Skinamarink, especially because those videos are meant to dually disturb and lull viewers into sleep, which I feel this film also encourages at some points. What motivated you to make the leap from short to feature filmmaking, and how did the Youtube channel influence the production going into it?
Ball: When I decided, “OK, I’m finally gonna make the leap,” I had done about 30 nightmare videos up until that point and learned a lot about myself as a filmmaker. I used [Heck], a proof of concept short, as a stepping stone between the two—I find that it’s really good to do things in increments. When we got to the feature, it was obviously a much bigger endeavor, but it wasn’t necessarily too challenging because I had tons of time in sandboxes, to the point where I could go to the whole beach.
When people comment their nightmares, they are telling you what scares them. We have lots of nightmares, but we don’t necessarily remember all of them. What was interesting about it, too, was that nightmares aren’t necessarily what we think scares us. We don’t say, “Oh, I want to have a nightmare.” A big teddy bear monster just sort of happens to us [laughs]. They exist in this weird liminal space—they’re something our mind cooks up, but in the same vein, we don’t consciously make them.
Filmmaker: Just out of sheer curiosity, did you find any overwhelmingly common nightmares among those who shared theirs with you? Is there a dominant fear that presents itself in our subconscious above all others?
Ball: I would get a few different themes that would be recurring. The most common nightmare that people would describe is one that they remember from their childhood, and it was always about the same: “I’m between the ages of 6 and 10. I’m in my house. My parents are dead or missing or incapacitated. There’s a monster or a threat of some sort, and I have to deal with it.” That kept coming up. Actually, when I started the YouTube series, because I didn’t have any comments to build on, I made a nightmare that I remembered—I vividly remember it. After a while of seeing that nightmare described over and over, I thought, “There’s something to this. This is a universal feeling, or, at the very least, a universal subconscious fear.” I had always kind of thought about doing a big, scary house movie—ideally with kids, because that does heighten the emotions, but seeing that nightmare keep coming up in comments kind of solidified it.
Filmmaker: I think that that probably speaks to why people have such a visceral reaction to this film, because whether or not we remember it, most of us have probably had that same sort of subconscious fear.
Ball: Yeah, people should study that dream, because I feel like almost every person has it. It’s almost a normal part of development.
Filmmaker: Getting into the technical aspects of the film, I’m really impressed by its lo-fi effectiveness. First off, what did you shoot on and how did you generate the graininess in post? It’d also be great if you could also give some insight into the practically non-existent lighting, which is fantastic.
Ball: My wonderful director of photography, Jamie McRae, picked the Sony FX6. I forget what lenses we used, but the great thing about a modern digital camera—and that one in particular—is that it almost sees in the dark, almost better than the human eye, with somewhat minimal artifacting or grain. We were able to basically light the entire movie with what was available [on location]. Significant portions of the movie were literally just lit by the television. And the scenes that aren’t are at the beginning of the movie, and we were just using lamps and a flashlight. Outside of that, the only light we used that didn’t exist in the house in real-time was for a few scenes that are “pitch black,” where we used a sun gun with a blue filter over it.
As far as making it look old, I purchased a package of film grain overlays a while back. I think they were Super 16mm. When I got to editing, I picked different overlays, graded and played with the levels shot-by-shot, and I just did that until it looked right and read well. It wasn’t just one overlay I looped a hundred times. I took my time to make sure there were enough varieties, so you didn’t subconsciously say, “Oh, I’ve seen this overlay before.”
Another thing was the sound. I consulted my friend Tom Brent, who advised me on how to make it sound “old.” I set up a little pre-set, low-pass filter and some reverb. I couldn’t just apply this over the entire track, so I had to find each individual sound to play with the different levels. If I had it too hot, it would be unintelligible. If I had it too low, it would sound too modern. So I had to do this exact same dance with the sound design.
Filmmaker: Yes, I’d like to get into the sound design a bit more. I read that you didn’t record any sound while actually filming. It definitely adds to the uncanniness and old-school soundscape of the film, but I’m wondering if it also made it easier to kind of play around with the editing process, having the images and the audio inherently disconnected from each other? How much of the story came together for you in the edit, or did it stay close to the script throughout the entire production?
Ball: It actually did stay fairly close to the script. There are only a handful of scenes that we deleted. I still went into everything with the intention—and this is shown in the script as well— that we will never see the actor’s faces. One, it will save time [shooting]. Two, it’ll make it easier working with child actors. And three, we can change things up. So we shot it, then we did all the ADR and additional dialogue recording separately. And with that, if there was ever a scene where, “Oh, I want to have them say this line in this scene,” I wouldn’t have to worry about it matching, because it would work either way. There are even a few parts where we use subtitles as an analog horror thing, and there’s one line that I actually made work just from sewing different parts of dialogue together. So yeah, it was totally intentional and saved me a lot of stress.
Filmmaker: I’ve also got a question about the broader production design of the film. Distinctly retro touches—like the boxy TV, vintage toys (that Fisher Price phone scared the shit out of me) and wall to wall carpeting—stand out in particular in placing the film in the ‘90s. Where did you source some of these props, and was any of it already present in your childhood home?
Ball: My parents’ house doesn’t look particularly ’90s, but there were a few things that we could work with. For example, the stairs and upstairs hallway are all carpeted—in a certain color grading it reads beige, even though in reality it’s a kind of modern gray. And there are still hints of wood paneling in the living room, in the stairwell, which worked well. We had to cheat other things. We had to take away a lot of items because they were just too modern. I found that the more we took away, the more it worked, and there were a handful of things we had to bring in. There’s a credenza beside the TV that was actually a loan from another production that was shooting in town. They were just giving it away. I said, “That’s my credenza now!” I still have it, it’s now in my bedroom.
There were other things, too. Like, the kitchen is impossible to read as ’90s, because the appliances are just too modern. So we literally had to either avoid it with the camera or under-light it. As far as the props, my mother, God bless her, had perfectly organized rubber bins in the basement with a few keepsakes from our childhood. This included that phone, which I do not remember playing with, but had written into the script with the intention of sourcing later on. You could imagine my surprise when we opened the bin and that was there [laughs]. There was other stuff, too. I had a little Oilers jersey, and that’s in one of the shots, but I had to cover the logo, obviously. The TV my friend just had lying around, so we used that. It’s still at my parents’ house, though, because it’s so heavy.
The last thing that just fell into my lap: I had always written the film with a bunch of Legos in the script, and I was like, “Where am I going to get all of these?” I happened to have a friend who is a fully-grown man with bins of Lego. It was perfect, and we didn’t lose a single—well, okay, I think we may have lost one or two—but of the thousands of Lego, it mostly all got back to him.
Filmmaker: What was it like working with the actors–specifically the kids who play Kevin and Kaylee, and the latter of which I heard is your goddaughter? Do you think that the dissonance between the film shoot and recording of the dialogue helped shape the effectiveness of their performances?
Ball: I don’t know if Dali, who plays Kaylee, is technically my goddaughter, but let’s just say she is. Why not? Because it would be an honor for me. I cast the mom [character] first, and she knew the actor who then played the dad. And his son, Lucas, had acted in a public service announcement—I think about recycling—before. So those all fell into my lap, but I was still having difficulty tracking down someone to play Kaylee. Then my friend Emma messaged me, and she was like, “Oh, Kyle, how are things going with your movie?” I was like, “Great, but I’m having difficulties with casting.” Then I thought about it, and I said, “How old is Dali? I wonder if she wants to be in a movie?”
I have fairly limited experience working with actors. I’ve done it before, but I never directed kids. You’re always told it’s so challenging working with kids, animals and special effects. And it can be: Kids can only shoot for a certain period of time if the shoot is more than a couple days, you have to accommodate an on-set tutor, all of these totally reasonable things. Going into it from day one, I thought, “How can I write and plan for this so that it’s kid-friendly?” We can get their scenes done in half a day, and get all of their lines without it being too difficult. That’s really the crux of why I came up with the idea of shooting their footage [beforehand] and recording their lines after. We set up the audio recording equipment in the living room to make it more relaxed and less intimidating. I coached them through the lines: “Can you say it like this? Okay, that was excellent. Can you do it one more time, just a little bit quieter?” Et cetera.
The first shot we did, I was so nervous. I was actually kind of shaking, then I said “action.” And the kids just did their scene perfectly, the opening shot where they’re in the hallway. I was like, “Oh, that was so easy.” Then I just instantly calmed down. I said, “Oh, this is gonna be a piece of cake!” And it really was. I was shocked at how realistic those kids were. They were phenomenal.
Filmmaker: There’s also definitely something to be said in terms of how warped one’s sense of time is in the film. It’s presented as taking place in 1995, but the artificial film grain evokes the ‘70s. Meanwhile, the archival public domain cartoons you implement are largely from before the ‘50s. Then there’s the inexplicable time jump that notes that, somehow, over 500 days have passed since the doors and windows initially disappeared. How did the distortion of time factor into your telling of this story?
Ball: From the beginning, I wanted to do a movie that looked and felt like something from the ‘70s, but in my mind I wanted the movie to take place in 1995. For a while I thought, “How do I compromise those things or make that work?” At some point I said, “You know what, I don’t care. I’m just going to do it.” I know it’s a contradiction, but I think it works. Who says you can’t do this? So the short answer of why I set a movie in 1995 but made it look like the ‘70s is just because I wanted to. I think people should do things that are counterintuitive if they think it can work.
As far as the old cartoons, we obviously had to have stuff like that because it’s all public domain. We couldn’t let them watch The Lion King, which would have probably been more appropriate, because that’s what I watched a billion times at that age. I do remember that we did have a little bargain bin VHS tape that had a bunch of public domain cartoons on it that we would watch from time to time. All of the ones I remember appear in the film. There’s a Cinderella-ish story that was, oddly enough, made by General Motors. They made her a carriage. It’s weird. Then there’s one called Somewhere in Dreamland by Max Fleischer, which I milked the hell out of because it’s about a little boy and a little girl who have a dream. In reality, we [as kids in 1995] would have been watching The Lion King, or maybe even older stuff like Pinocchio. We would’ve watched Homeward Bound, too. But it’s kind of a nice restraint that we can only play these old public cartoons, because they’re sentimental and creepy and weird.
Filmmaker: Of course, I have to ask about the film’s viral hype on TikTok. Have you been following any of the online conversations surrounding the film? What do you think specifically about an experimental horror film entrenched in decades past speaks to Gen Z’s taste?
Ball: First of all, I think it’s incredibly cool that Gen Z has gravitated towards it so much. I really don’t know why, but I just think I did something new, and younger people tend to like that. I also felt that I didn’t talk down to the audience. I didn’t make something that was too slick, you know? I think it’s awesome and incredible that it’s kind of blown up the way that it did. I used to watch a lot of stuff online about it at the beginning because there was so little of it. But since it’s blown up, I’ve kind of had to purposely shut it out because I can’t keep up with it.
Filmmaker: Yeah, I mean, for a very low-budget debut horror feature to have all of this online buzz is perhaps a bit against the norm, especially without any distribution companies attached or a release date announced. Did this hype aid in having the film get picked up?
Ball: Well, the ink was dry on the deal with Shudder and IFC months ago. They were planning on releasing it on Halloween of 2023. So I guess everyone knows now, but it was leaked and pirated heavily. There was this weird phase for three weeks after the leak where I was panicked, because I thought, “What if Shudder and IFC want to get out of the contract?” Then I found out that they were like, “No, that’s not the case at all. We still love the movie and want to support it, and we’ll do everything in our power to get the release date bumped up sooner and accommodate this issue.” They’ve been amazing from start to finish. I can’t thank them enough for all of that.
Filmmaker: You’ve previously stated that you were tentatively in the works on a new project, and that you find the autumn and winter particularly fruitful for your writing process. Can you speak to anything you’re currently working on, or what viewers can anticipate next from you?
Ball: I did have two ideas I was thinking about. But the more I talked about them, unfortunately, the more I’ve fallen out of love with them. I have a third idea that no one knows about that I’m getting more excited about. My plan was to have already started writing something, but since the movie’s blown up, I haven’t had time. But late in the evenings when everything’s quiet, the wheels have been turning with that one. Hopefully I will have something to pitch early next year, but I don’t know when the public’s gonna find out about that. I’m just going to say that I’ve been approached by a lot of producers and production companies, and I have had fairly substantial talks with one in particular. I can’t say who that is yet, but I think when people find out about that, they will also be excited. So stay tuned.